Joely Richardson keeps interrupting me. She does it fabulously. We’re at an outdoor cafe near London’s Television Centre, talking about her new drama Suspect. She’s one of a murderer’s row of thespians who may or may not have dunnit. Channel 4 is still keeping the finale under lock and key, I say, so we can’t talk about the ending. “The denouement!” she interjects. But hypothetically… “Ha ha! ‘Hypothetically, what’s the ending?’ You’re gooood! And doing it all so innocently, hoping I’ll reveal everything.” But – I continue my sleuthing – hypothetically, have you ever played… “Horrible characters?” Well, wrong ’uns… “Many times,” she sighs. “I feel like I’m still waiting to play a right ’un.” That’s surprising, I tell her. Why does she think people gravitate towards her for… “Anything?” She lets out a big, back-of-the-rafters hoot.
This is what it’s like chatting with Richardson. Fast. Frenetic. Probably exhausting if you can’t quite keep up. It’s a bit like taking part in a tennis match. But while she has an innate regality – that’s what happens when you’re part of an acting dynasty, I suppose – she’s also incredibly fun, with a magnetic puckishness that keeps you on your toes. Much like her mother Vanessa Redgrave, and her late sister Natasha, she’s always been just as unpredictable as an actor. Romping with Sean Bean in the Nineties Lady Chatterley and playing kindly pet owner Anita in the live-action 101 Dalmatians cemented her as a bastion of well-spoken loveliness, but there’s often been an ethereal menace to her performances, too. Look no further than her early turn as a murderess in Peter Greenaway’s dream-logic thriller Drowning by Numbers, or as an incestuous French maid in the eerie Sister My Sister. Her inability to be defined as any one thing is, truthfully, her secret weapon.
“That’s the funny thing about being an actor,” she continues, dressed in a chic blouse the colour of a Quality Street tin. “You never know what you project.” She had an inkling last year, though, when she searched her name online. (For the very first time, she promises.) She found her credits – including the perpetually restless surgeon’s wife on the US drama series Nip/Tuck – but otherwise “saw zero representation of who I feel I am. Just red carpet appearances. And I got why people think certain things about me. I can come across as looking really hard. A bit ‘rarefied air’. But I hope that’s not who I am.” And that’s why, she beams: “I started an Instagram at the grand old age of 57. Just me, who I am, just so it’s out there with the other stuff.”
Richardson thinks some more about her past work. “I have played some nice characters, I suppose. Julia on Nip/Tuck was ball-park nice.” There’s Anita, I remind her. “Of course! She was a dream.” And, she offers, there’s Netflix’s forthcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. She plays the mother of a supervillain. “She’s someone a bit, ‘Is she good? Is she bad?’” Richardson throws up her hands. “Oh, I don’t know what I project, you tell me. Do you know?” I think… “Oh, you couldn’t care less! Why would you?”
Suspect plays on that very ambiguity. James Nesbitt is grumpy policeman Danny Frater, who is called upon to investigate a young woman’s death. Only when Richardson’s enigmatic pathologist lifts the sheet covering the Jane Doe’s face does Frater make a grisly discovery: the woman is his estranged daughter. Over the course of eight 30-minute episodes, Frater individually interrogates his daughter’s friends, lovers and associates, trying to unravel what happened to her. Anne-Marie Duff, Richard E Grant and Niamh Algar are among the other Brit greats called upon to act shifty.
On set, Richardson loved that her Suspect episode was more or less a two-hander play between herself and Nesbitt – her theatrical credits include everything from Lady Windermere’s Fan to a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson – but struggled with some of the more complex medical terminology she had to learn. “I sometimes think I’m a bit dyslexic,” she says. “It didn’t come naturally to me at all.” If anything, it reminded her of a US TV show she once made, called Emerald City, in which she played a witch. “We had to speak in ‘witch talk’, which was basically gobbledygook. So you had to learn it all phonetically.”
“Being older, though,” she adds, “I find I love to work harder. Maybe it’s because it all feels so much more precious, or maybe it’s just that thing of getting older. You descend into your own skin. You know your opinion.”
It wasn’t always that way. She chose to act only after years in competitive sports, studying at Rada and then working for a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Films came later. But she took longer to find herself as a person, to figure out what she thought about things. Her childhood, after all, was serenaded by Redgrave’s work as an activist and anti-war campaigner. There was obvious pressure attached. “Growing up, everyone around me had such huge opinions about everything,” she remembers. “I found that I didn’t, and that was a bit scary. I wanted to know things, and how I felt about things. But it took years. Now, as a much more mature adult, I have an idea. There’s something very comforting about that.”
She and Redgrave remain close. She cheered her on in the West End just a few weeks earlier, with Redgrave – at the age of 85 – currently starring in My Fair Lady. “I was mind-blown,” Richardson fangirls. “I realised: oh my goodness, this is where she lives. This is where she’s most alive, most comfortable. It was an extraordinary thing to see.” I’m curious to know what she’s learned from her over the years. “Oh, to be forever humble,” she says. “That you’re forever a student, that you’ve never arrived, that you’re always a work in progress.”
When it comes to her own career, Richardson credits Nip/Tuck – which earned her two Golden Globes nods – as a particular breakthrough. Even if the show did become slightly unhinged as it went on. Richardson appeared less and less on the series – family commitments led her to return to the UK during its fourth season – and by the time it came to a close in 2010, Julia had given birth to a baby with lobster hands, been held hostage, been doused in the ashes of her lesbian lover… Unhinged, as I said. In a surreal casting coup, Redgrave was recruited to play Julia’s mother, and that story resolved with her character being sent to jail after Julia planted cocaine on her airplane carry-on.
“I do remember feeling like it was getting a bit outlandish,” Richardson deadpans. “What I liked best about the show was when it was extreme but also grounded. But there’s a theory that long-running shows – the good ones, at least – start brilliantly, sometimes have a lull in the middle, and then end brilliantly.” She can’t speak for Nip/Tuck, though. “I’ve never actually seen the last few seasons. I just stopped. I don’t really know why.”
Even when the show drifted off to parts deranged, Richardson was always marvellous on it – yearning, erratic, secretly formidable. She admits to “taking a while to grow into acting”, but also that she remains imperfect. “Sometimes I see things, old or new, and I’m like, ‘What? That’s just horrible! You thought you were doing well?’ Other times, though, I see things I’m in and feel pleasantly surprised by myself. ‘Oh, where did that come from?’”
It’s not as simple as merely getting better at the job, though. “It’s always two steps forward, then one back. Nip/Tuck was definitely a turning point, but then some of the work I did around my sister’s death…” She goes quiet for a moment. “There was a little bit of a disconnect.” Natasha died in a skiing accident in 2009, at the age of 45. “I think, without realising it, I went a bit into automatic pilot. I did some telly around that time, some of which I saw during lockdown.” She cringes. “Yeah, not so good.”
Richardson has spoken in the past of being weary of headlines for her interviews that accentuate her grief over her sister’s death. Not because they’ve ever been inaccurate; purely because there have been so many of them. But it’s also difficult to not read between the lines when Richardson discusses her perspective on life. Last year, she returned to the world of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, playing not the free-spirited lead (she’s played by The Crown’s Emma Corrin), but the older caretaker for Lady Chatterley’s husband. She says she found it enriching. “It’s all about honouring the passing of time,” she says.
“We’ve gone in a slightly different direction with it,” Richardson says, somewhat mischievously. “Do you want to see a still?” She pulls out her phone and scrolls through her photographs, landing on one of her in costume. Her character, Mrs Bolton, is dressed in a big, stocky gown and sporting a black wig. The last time Mrs Bolton was dramatised on-screen, she was played by a pre-Killing Eve Jodie Comer. Richardson, meanwhile, appears to have been thoroughly de-glammed and aged up for the part.
“We used the same costume house where I had my fittings for Lady Chatterley 30-something years ago,” she recalls. “And now here I am in these sturdy, horrible dresses! Obviously, Lady Chatterley is such a well-rounded character, but it feels so rewarding at my age to be playing a grand assortment of people rather than [being asked], ‘Oh, does she look right in this dress?’”
Richardson talks about her age quite often, I notice. “Always! And in a proud way,” she says. “I got to be young once, I got to be middle-aged, and now I’m on the other side of it, I suppose. And I want to be this age, you know?”
She squints in the afternoon sun, radiant despite the baking weather. “Because, really, isn’t it brilliant whenever we make it another year? Aren’t we lucky?”
‘Suspect’ begins tonight (Sunday 19 June) at 9pm on Channel 4 and All 4